Business owners and ethically-conscious reviewers alike have been making moves away from the massive online review site, Yelp, citing allegations that the reviewer might not be as business-friendly as once thought.
Many business owners have complained about unfair “extortion” by the site, alleging aggressive calls and frequent approaching by yelp representatives to partner with them. Many of these businesses have claimed to have noticed that when they refuse or drop partnership with Yelp, their good reviews disappear, and that when they call yelp to ask about why their good reviews [created by genuine customers] are deleted from the business’ page their concerns are met with apathy, or in some cases- strong “suggestions” to partner with the reviewer to have the issue resolved.
A look at Yelp’s page in the google play store reveals a growing sentiment from business owners that maintain that Yelp’s interest in subscribing more advertisers far outweighs their interest in fixing their flawed reviewing system, take the following comments for example:
Tony Jelev September 23, 2014 – Rate: 1/5 Stars
“No longer reliable… My business is on Yelp for about 2 years now. I only have positive reviews but noticed this : 30% of my reviews got filtered one week after i turned down Yelp rep offering paid advertising. All good 5 stars reviews from legit clients. Shame on you guys… ur greed for gold ruined one of the best sites for local business “
Nasko Filipov October 11, 2014 – Rate: 1/5 Stars
“They are just liars. I have an app business with 4 avg. Stars, out of 124 reviews. There 25 more reviews that Yelp thinks are worthless, majority of them 5 star reviews. Usually they stay around for a week and they get removed. Negative reviews stay. I only use it because my customers do, but it is just a complete lie. What is upsetting is that there is no explanation of why they remove them other than we think they are worthless. And then they call me to advertise with them. Complete bullshit.”
Bianca V September 28, 2014 – Rate: 4/5 Stars
“Great app Bout don’t forget that yelp was recently granted permission to legally change the reviews of companies for money. In would take the reviews a little less seriously from now on, but otherwise it has good info and is easy to use.”
David Campbell October 13, 2014 – Rate: 1/5 Stars
“Dishonest. Read current news about Yelp. They are dishonest. Just to check, I checked on a bad review I gave on a restaurant a while back. (I rarely give a bad review) And it was “hidden” under reviews “not recommend” for reading. I’m uninstalling.”
While Yelp has been winning court battles over their extortion allegations, it seems that their trust amongst consumers has been in decline. Just last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals court ruled that even if Yelp did delete positive reviews [in retaliation of declined advertising] the deletion still wouldn’t classify as extortion.
In a blogpost by Yelp, the company disputes claims that it deletes reviews and defends the lack of transparency in its review methods:
“Reviews are never “deleted” by the review filter; they are always shown on users’ profile pages. The review filter simply syndicates established users’ reviews from their user pages onto business pages. This automated process sometimes creates the perception that reviews are being deleted and re-added over time; what’s actually happening is users are becoming more-or-less established over time.”
We’re purposely not elaborate about all the variables that go into defining an “established” user, because it’s a Catch-22: the more descriptive we are about what makes an established user, the less effective our filter is at fighting shills and malicious content.”
In a thorough Buzzfeed piece, Harvard professor Michael Luca teamed up with Georgios Zervas, a post-doctoral fellow in computer science at Yale University, and discussed their research on the Yelp extortion theory. Their findings contradict many of the claims brought forth by business owners and cite things like “misunderstandings of how Yelp works” and “distrust of technology” as to why the rumors would still persist.
When comparing businesses that were and were not partnered with yelp, Michael Luca explained:
“We just see that there’s no difference across the two groups…The fact that we didn’t see it is at least suggestive that it’s not that substantiated.” Luca isn’t completely pro-Yelp in this case either though, “Part of this controversy comes from the fact that there’s absolutely no transparency,” he explains in the piece.
As “unsubstantiated” as Luca and Zervas may find the claims, the FTC has revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request that over 2,000 complaints have been filed against Yelp since 2008- Majority of which have been filed in just the last two years alone.
Whether or not the rumors of Yelp extorting or selectively deleting rings true, this much can be deduced:
A) Yelp is selectively deleting reviews as retaliation against businesses who aren’t interested in partnering with them
B) Yelp’s review selection system is flawed without malice, but due to the nature of the flawed system, it seems that Yelp is intentionally deleting good reviews of businesses
C) Yelp representatives are bringing up partnering with businesses at a really inappropriate times when businesses are asking for help correcting their reviews.
Despite whatever the truth may be, one thing can be accurately concluded; Yelp needs to show some real strides in their system, otherwise they’ll find themselves counting their lucky stars while facing a faltering review of their own.